Woodburn Program Prepares Diverse Local Teachers

When she was 8 years old, Jennifer Alonzo ’18 immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her parents. The family settled in Woodburn, Ore., which has long been home to one of the largest Latino communities in the state.

Yet in school, the majority of Alonzo’s teachers were white, and none of them spoke Spanish. Now, Alonzo, the first in her family to attend college, is striving to bring a different perspective to schools in her community.

“Growing up, we did not see teachers from different cultures and backgrounds, and that’s why I got passionate” about teaching, Alonzo said.

To pursue her dream of becoming a teacher, Alonzo didn’t have to stray far from home. After earning an associate’s degree from Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., she enrolled in Pacific University’s Bachelor of Education in Teaching and English Language Learning (BEd) program.

The degree-completion program, launched in Fall 2014 with just three students, is helping to move the needle on a problem that has long plagued public schools in Oregon and the rest of the country: a low level of diversity among teachers.

It is one of a number of “grow your own” teacher-training initiatives that have sprung up across the country in recent years. Offered at Pacific’s Woodburn and Eugene campuses, the two-year program serves students coming out of community colleges — the first step in higher education for many minorities.

“Research shows the most effective teachers are those that have a connection to the community that students belong to and to the language that the students themselves speak,” said Kevin Carr, director of Pacific’s Woodburn Campus and a professor of science education.

In Oregon, students of color account for more than a third of all public-school students, but only about 10 percent of public-school teachers are nonwhite, according to a report by the Chief Education Office.

“On one level, diversifying the teaching force is about having equal opportunity for everyone to become a teacher,” which is a middle-class job, Carr said.

“But on a deeper level, students [of color] need to have some teachers along their journey of K-12 education who see them not as outsiders, but as insiders in their community. To do that, we have to have our teaching force become representative of the students in the classrooms.”

Pacific is reaching deep into one of Oregon’s most-diverse school districts, Woodburn, to identify middle and high school students who may be interested in teaching careers. It’s doing so through a peer-mentoring program — developed in partnership with the Woodburn district and Chemeketa — designed to get middle and high school students more college-ready.

Chemeketa students mentor middle and high school students in the Woodburn district, helping them to explore goals, research colleges and learn about scholarship opportunities. Visits to the Pacific and Chemeketa campuses in Woodburn are part of the program.

“We let middle [and high school] students know that they can be college-bound,” said Donna Kalmbach Phillips, a professor of education and coordinator of the BEd program.

Most students in the BEd program are the first in their families to attend college. Many are also bilingual and grew up in deep poverty.

By working in local elementary schools throughout the program, they not only gain necessary teaching experience, but also begin to develop professional identities and connections.

Our students aren’t “around bouncing around to different school sites,” Phillips said. From their first semester in the BEd program, they are “embedded” in one of two partner elementary schools, “where they grow relationships that become really powerful and important to their learning.”

Some recent graduates, like Fabiola Gavina Zavala ’17, have already landed jobs in the Woodburn district.

Gavina Zavala moved from Mexico to Woodburn when she was 8. Initially, she struggled in school, largely because she received no English-as-a-second-language instruction. But she was bright and determined and before long stood out academically. She eventually graduated in the top of her high school class before attending Chemeketa and then Pacific.

“I feel like I am completing the circle: I will be working alongside teachers who helped me quite a bit,” Gavina Zavala said.

Enrollment in BEd program has grown over time, but it remains small in student and faculty count, and that’s intentional, Phillips said. There are just 12 students in the program’s fourth cohort. Most are Latina, and all are the first in their families to attend college.

“The uniqueness of our program,” she said, “depends on a lot of mentoring, advising and one-on-one” with students — many of whom have financial and family-related challenges or worry about current immigration policies and actions. Some are parents or expectant parents, or are helping to support their own parents.

“If you have a small number of people, you can create community and relationships, rather than only focusing on content and skills. You share one another’s lives and stories,” said Phillips, who will take a sabbatical during the 2017-18 academic year to conduct program evaluation.

She’ll document the lives of students who completed the BEd program in Spring 2017 during their first year after graduation. Their post-graduation experiences will be used to determine what, if any, changes should be made to the program.

“I want to honor [our graduates] by collecting their stories and seeing what we can learn from them.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017